Thursday, 20 April 2017

Do You Know the Way to St Tropez?

I recently saw a poster of Brigitte Bardot in the 1957 movie Et Dieu Créa La Femme (And God Created Woman). Besides presenting la Bardot, the film launched the town of St Tropez, which had not until then made the impact on tourists that Cannes had already for a century.

I was surprised to see that, even today, sixty years on, St Tropez has fewer than 6,000 inhabitants and has never been connected to SNCF railways. Clearly part of its exclusivity was that it was hard to reach.

I came then to wonder who this saint was. ‘Tropez’ is hardly a common name. He may have been a Roman, with a name given as ‘Caius Silvius Torpetius’, a martyr executed, it is said, by Nero on 29 April AD68. His martyrdom is connected with the port of Pisa. Pisa is held to be an Etruscan city, since it contains an Etruscan mausoleum, so ‘Caius’ would be Gaius, most common Roman praenomen; Etruscan has no letter G. Silvius, the nomen of the Gens Silvia, tells us little either. This was the name of the royal family of Alba Longa, but not one in existence in later times.

Torpetius is a useless cognomen, as it means nothing in Latin. I speculate that is might be a local pronunciation in P Italic of the same word which in Latin is Torquatus. This would tie us in to some very important people.  Two shared the name Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus. The elder, uncle to the younger, was praetor in AD48, but committed suicide on 1 January 49, having been accused by Claudius of incest with his sister. The nephew, descended from Augustus, was exiled as soon as Nero acceded to the throne and sent ‘to a country town’ where he died. Could this be Portus Pisanum?

The saint was supposedly either a gladiator or a member of the emperor’s personal guard. Well, it’s highly unlikely that he would be both a gladiator and have the Roman tria nomina. Roman citizens were forbidden to be gladiators and gladiators were denied the right ever to become Roman citizens. So we can scotch that.

It’s also highly unlikely that at that time an ordinary soldier in the imperial bodyguard would be a Roman citizen, not while serving anyway. The imperial bodyguard mostly comprised Germans. However, senior officers of the bodyguard would probably be equites, another relationship mentioned by saints’ lives of Torpetius.

Orthodox Christian Image of St Torpetius
The saint was beheaded and then placed in a boat with a cock and a dog, and sent down the River Arno to the sea, where, mirabile dictu, it floated all the way to southern Gaul. There are also claims that it drifted to Spain and even Portugal.

The boat with a cock and a dog, which, according to the miracula, didn’t touch the saint’s body but instead ran off once the boat landed in Gaul and had villages named after them, does strongly resemble the Roman punishment of poena cullei, in which the condemned man, often a parricide, was placed into a leather bag with snakes, a cock and a dog, who would injure him in their panic as all floated down the river (usually the Tiber) to certain death. The punishment was so peculiar that it was dreaded, and while it dated back to the Republic, it was used heavily by Claudius and Nero, was revived by Constantine and was still used in the era of Justinian.

So I suggest that St Tropez, Tropes in Provençal and Silvius Torpetius in local Latin, may have been Silanus Torquatus, killed by Nero for reasons unconnected to any supposed connection to early Christianity. Decapitation was not a normal Roman punishment, but one used by the Gauls (and Britons) to get rid of their political enemies. In the Christian era, pagan statue heads, like that of Apollo at Uley in Gloucestershire, might be buried as a damnatio memoriae.

If the fishermen of the unnamed Gaulish village had received a headless body in a boat, even with a cock and a dog, they would not have known it was a saint, would they? Tropez has no in vivo miracles attached to him. His vita, the Passio Sancti Torpetii, dates from the ninth century, which takes us very much into the Carolingian period, when this part of France was occupied by Arab Muslims. Subverting their tolerant regime by instigating and promoting a saint’s cult smack in the middle would be a typical piece of cultural theatre for the middle ages.

The priests who invented the saint also created a holy woman called Celerina, who had had a vision of the arrival of St Tropez, and who retrieved his body and dealt with it. Assuming this to be a Christian figure, it would be anachronistic, since there were almost certainly no Christians in Gaul at that time. Her name is a female version of Celerinus, considered a saint and ‘martyred’ by the emperor Decius at Carthage in AD250. He died of natural causes so he ought to be a confessor rather than a martyr, in that he was willing to be martyred, but wasn’t. He did have an aunt called Clerina who was a martyr, so maybe she is the Celerina in question, a mere 200 years later. Again, the Church would look for kudos for France based on this early martyrdom and an early saint. Many Gaulish female saints are Christianised versions of pagan goddesses anyway.

One source of the myth may have arrived from Spain. Liutprand of Cremona, the notoriously bad-tempered priest who worked for the Emperor Otto I and who rubbished Byzantium, recorded that Muslim converts called Muwallad, Latin speakers, landed at St Tropez (Heraclea was its ancient name) in 889 and rebuilt Fraxinet, anciently Fraxinetum, making it an important settlement. They were expelled by the forces of Count William, Margrave of Provence, because they had kidnapped the Abbot of Cluny. Losing the Battle of Tourtour in AD973, the Andalusis were killed or enslaved, and this marked the point at which all local and immigrant Muslims left that area of Francia.

Inventing a major saint, one with a Roman pedigree and international appreciation, is exactly what rulers did to win control of territories.

Les Bravades de St-Topez, Catholic Ritual in France
If Torquatus is the Torpetius/ Tropez of the martyrologies, he was unlucky to die on 29 April, in that Nero committed suicide on 9 June AD68, just a few weeks later.  Maybe he was merely exiled by Nero, since there is little to be gained in exiling someone just to kill them. If you’re emperor, you just kill them. If, as is suggested, Torquatus was a relative, Nero exiled him, and it was Galba who had him killed. By 29 April, the army revolt against Nero was in full spate.  The emperor was too busy trying to persuade his bodyguards not to run away and leave him to his fate (described by Tacitus Histories and Suetonius Twelve Caesars) to worry about early Christians (the claim that Nero executed SS Peter and Paul dates to Lactantius On the Death of the Persecutors (Chapter 2) in the early fourth century; earlier claims had been that they were executed during his reign, but not at his command).

Rococo image of the martyrdom of St Tropez
In summary, I consider that Saint Tropez was invented out of scraps of ancient texts  about Silanus Torquatus, with a dash of Lactantius and a pinch of grand guignol for the counts of Provence, to use as a justification to expell the hard-working and popular Muslims from the Fraxinet-Heraclea.

We’ve come a long way from Brigitte Bardot, but her life has at least been less fictionalised than St Tropez himself.





Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Sixty Over the Bridge: Growing Old as a Man in Rome

A common howler among my weaker students is the delightful Rome had a high mortality rate. I think I know what they mean: more people died young. The mortality rate, then as now, was 100 per cent. The Greek myth of Endymion, granted immortality but not eternal youth, would have made the concept unwelcome to those who knew of it.

Bust of an Old Man

 More people died young. For Roman citizens, especially in the Republic, death in a military context would have been a good possibility for males, while childbirth and post partum disease would have cut a swathe through the young female population as it did well into the twentieth century and still does in poor countries. Women are too important to be a footnote here and need to be dealt with in their own blog piece, to follow.

Many diseases we face today are those of old age. When people died younger, they died of different things. Diseases of human degeneration hardly existed. We do read of certain individuals dying of cancer – the emperor Constantius III had what may have been bowel cancer over several months in AD421. He was 51. The empress Theodora also died of cancer at the age of 48 (Victor of Tonnena, Chronicle s.a.548). As Cancer Research UK has often commented, 75% of cancer cases are in people over sixty, and if very few people made it to sixty in antiquity, we should expect the incidence to be lower anyway.

Most ancient societies found a role for those (mainly men) who didn’t die young. The Roman Senate emerges in the semi-legendary period following the expulsion of the kings (Regifugium). Consuls of the Roman Revolution, Lucius Junius Brutus and Titus Lucretius Tricipitinus had grown-up children. It is given that the rape of the latter’s daughter, Lucretia, provoked the rebellion, while the sons of Brutus, as in the famous modern painting, were executed for fighting alongside the ex-king. So the Consuls were probably in their forties or fifties.

The Latin word Senatus derives from senex/ senis ‘Old Man’; for a modern reader, learning that you could be considered an old man at just forty is sobering. But even in the supposedly stable period of the High Republic, Titus Flamininus was elected consul directly from quaestor at the age of thirty. Since men were not considered fully adult until twenty five, this was rapid and shown how narrow a window Roman males had for advancement – not below 25, over at 60.

Bust of an Old Man (looking remarkably like Iggy Pop)

We have few statistics for lifespan in antiquity; social order differences, whether you lived mostly in the city or on a country estate, occupation, all would make for major differences. Even the life of a slave could range from those working as field hands on Roman latifundia (nasty, brutish and short) to the high-status slave of a rich owner (probably living longer and better fed than a free person of the social underclass at Rome depending on bread doles in the Subura).

As Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence point out, we know more about the life stages of slime moulds than we do of people in antiquity (Growing Up and Growing Old in the Roman Empire, 2001). As humans have not changed genetically since long before the Roman period, the lifespan of people should be identical to what it was in (say) 1750, before we started inhaling coal smoke on a large scale. And in general it is. However, antiquity had few cures for childhood disease and frequent famines.

When we get inscriptions on tombstones and other monuments in the ‘pagan’ era, there is a lot of precision given much of the time, with dates and precise ages provided, not just years and months, but also days and hours of life. However, Christians scorned precise ages. ‘He was about fifty’ is the Christian style, designed to suggest that such things don’t matter, because, hey, the world’s going to end very soon. Early Christian millennial thinking is however undermined because the concept of any kind of monument is contrary to it.

Roman culture, backed up in some instances by law, specifies the age of sixty for old age. Men aged sixty and above weren’t eligible for military service or jury duty; while that may have been welcome, they also lost the right to vote in elections under the Republic. There was a saying ‘Sixty over the bridge’, the bridge being the passage through the voting booths on the Campus Martius. Once the empire was established, few things were voted on anyway and the Campus Martius was built over.

Senators aged sixty were no longer obliged to attend the Senate, and the same rule applied for decurions and their local curia in the various cities of the empire. That age seems to have been adopted as a norm across the empire.

Full length statue of an Old Man

We have two major Roman texts on old age: Cicero De Senectute (On Old Age), a work from the middle of the first century BC, and the Letters to Lucilius of Seneca, some 110 years later.

Cicero’s work is phrased as a conversation among Cato the Elder, Laelius and Scipio (son of Africanus). Cato praises influence as a benefit of old age, since the Senate called members to speak in order of their age, so those who were oldest spoke first (De Senectute 18).

Marcus Tullius Cicero; contemporary bust


Physical decay is acknowledged as an issue in a speech given to Cato:

But, the critics say, old men are morose, troubled, fretful, and hard to please; and, if we inquire, we shall find that some of them are misers, too. However, these are faults of character, not of age. Yet moroseness and the other faults mentioned have some excuse, not a really sufficient one, but such as it may seem possible to allow, in that old men imagine themselves ignored, despised, and mocked at; and besides, when the body is weak, the lightest blow gives pain. (Cicero De Senectute 18.65).

But this is a philosophical tract, dedicated to Cicero’s friend Atticus. It doesn’t pretend to be read as reality.

Seneca writes more tellingly:

Wherever I turn, I see evidences of my advancing years. I visited lately my country-place, and protested against the money which was spent on the tumble-down building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not due to his own carelessness; "he was doing everything possible, but the house was old." And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling? I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen in the bailiff's presence. "It is clear," I cried, "that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shrivelled; the boles are so rough and unkempt! This would not happen, if someone loosened the earth at their feet, and watered them." The bailiff swore by my protecting deity that "he was doing everything possible, and never relaxed his efforts, but those trees were old." Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself, I had seen them in their first leaf.
Then I turned to the door and asked: "Who is that broken-down dotard? You have done well to place him at the entrance; for he is outward bound. Where did you get him? What pleasure did it give you to take up for burial some other man's dead? But the slave said: "Don't you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave." "The man is clean crazy," I remarked. "Has my pet slave become a little boy again? But it is quite possible; his teeth are just dropping out." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letters to Lucilius 12)

Seneca; probably contemporary

He returns to the physical impairments of age in another letter:

Nevertheless, I offer thanks to myself, with you as witness; for I feel that age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body. It has laid aside the greater part of its load. It is alert; it takes issue with me on the subject of old age; it declares that old age is its time of bloom. (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letters to Lucilius 26)

Seneca died at his own hand aged 68, at the instigation of Nero. It is quite likely that he would have lived in to greater old age without that impetus. Again, this is philosophy to console someone in old age.

Plutarch

Similar sentiments can be read in one of Plutarch’s Moralia essays:

For granted that nature seeks in every way pleasure and enjoyment, old men are physically incapacitated for all pleasures except a few necessary ones, and not only as Euripides says, but their appetites also for food and drink are for the most part blunted and toothless, so that they can, if I may say so, hardly whet and sharpen them. They ought to prepare for themselves pleasures in the mind, not ignoble and illiberal ones like that of Simonides, who said to those who reproached him for his avarice that, since old age had deprived him of all other pleasures, he was comforting his declining years with the only one left, the pleasure of gain. (Plutarch Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs’ 5).

This is of course an entirely aristocratic view, and of the 100 million souls in the Roman Empire, only a couple of thousand ever had the wealth to contemplate the merits of old age. Most were working till they dropped.

How many people in the empire had read the works of Cicero, Seneca or Plutarch?  Probably very few indeed. It would be generous to say one per cent; only a tiny number had the leisure time (otium) to do so. Probably a larger number had read the Sayings of Publius Syrus, a popular work because it comprised simple maxims written or compiled by a first century BC Syrian author, known and admired by Julius Caesar. Here’s a selection:

1. As men, we are all equal in the presence of death.
55. He has existed only, not lived, who lacks wisdom in old age
68. What greater evil could you wish a miser than long life?
105. A death that ends the ills of life is a blessing.
158. He who longs for death confesses that life is a failure.
324. Man’s life is a loan, not a gift.
566. There is no more shameful sight than an old man commending life.
1087. Man’s life is short and therefore an honourable death is his immortality.

Publius Syrus

There are maxims ranging from the profound to the frankly bizarre, and while they offer cracker barrel philosophy, they were more likely to be known to ordinary people than ever the works of the greats.

This is also a male view. The worth of women dropped once they had passed childbearing age. The wergilds of Dark Age women reflected that, so it may be the case that they were following common imperial practice. The life course of women is better the subject of its own blog piece.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Turn Left to Triumph: The Meta Sudans of Rome

The Meta Sudans is one of the oddest monuments in the city of Rome. I’ll bet most have never heard of it. It’s hard to think what purpose it served. The word /meta/ can mean finishing-point, goalpost, turning point and similar terms. It’s connected with the Greek word ‘meta’ (μετά) where it has the sense of being the end-point of something. But the Greek is a bound morpheme, usually used as prefix, where the Latin is a simple noun. There is some indication that the Etruscans had metae before the Romans, and, as they had an orientalising culture, the connotation of the word may have shifted somewhat, from abstract to concrete.

The Meta Sudans – the sweating cone – stood in Region IV ‘Templum Pacis’, the Temple of Peace. This was a mixture of monumental architecture and down-at -heel housing. It included the ancient Temple of Jupiter Stator and the Subura, one of those areas referred to today as ‘bustling and colourful’ when they mean ‘dangerous’. The district also included the Colossal Statue, but not the  Flavian Amphitheatre (amphitheatrum qui capit loca LXXXVII), which is in Region III ‘Isis et Serapis’, so the boundary of the two regions of the city must have been between the two locations. Quite probably the Meta Sudans was used as a boundary stone.

Topper and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1929) suggests it was the common marker for Regions I, (Porta Capena) II, (Caelemontium) III, IV and X (Palatium). There are many places in England where several counties conjoin, and there are ten ‘three shire stones’, so it may have served a similar function. Indeed, it may have served a number of functions; we can imagine the senior vicomagister of each city district affected by a Triumph meeting here to plan the events. There may have been other metae in Rome, for it to need an adjective to determine it.

We can see it newly built in a coin of Titus (r. AD79-81), just to the left of the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum to you and me).  On the coin, it is spurting water rather than sweating or oozing it. By AD354, when the Chronographer itemised the things to be seen in Rome, it certainly had the name (metam sudantem, in the Accusative case).

Sestertius of Titus, showing the Meta Sudans, left
The term ‘meta sudans’ existed before it was built under the Flavians, since as Bill Thayer points out in his as always first rate Lacus Curtius site, it’s referred to in a letter from Seneca to his friend Luculius (aut hunc qui ad Metam Sudantem tubulas experitur et tibias, nec cantat sed exclamat; Seneca Epistulae Morales 4.56) with regard to one at Baiae. This does not mean that the one in Rome was created with that name, as it might have inherited it when it changed to a slighter flow later in antiquity.

There not being such a monument during the life of Seneca (and thus of Nero), yet it was already functioning during the brief reign of Titus, suggests that it was constructed during the decade of Vespasian’s reign. Perhaps it can be related to the Domus Aurea of Nero, which included an artificial lake, created by the engineers Celer and Severus to create a delightful rus in urbe; we could not rule out a purely functional purpose, to regulate hydraulic pressure for Nero’s lake. As that was rapidly dismantled, perhaps the Meta Sudans as we had it until 1936 was prettified and made to be part of a monumental assemblage, because it could not be removed without flooding the area.

The Cloaca Maxima in 1814, oil painting by CW Eckersberg
We can see from nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs than there wasn’t much left. The coin of Titus suggests a high-pressure flow, which did not exist in later centuries, and which was heavily reduced in antiquity. One possibility was that it was used as a safety valve for the water flows from the nearby hills; with heavy rains and rising groundwater flowing off, it could be opened to produce the column of water seen on the coin.


Colourised (perhaps hand-tinted) scene in 1890; maybe a postcard

Victorian photograph of a distant Meta Sudans by the Arch of Titus

Meta Sudans seen through the 250 years later Arch of Constantine


Any large city depends utterly on water flowing, and this was as true for Rome as it was for Los Angeles in the film Chinatown. Rulers, to be seen as benefactors, will want to mark their munificence by a flow of water beyond the level of need. It may have been intended primarily to impress people, in the manner of the Emperor Fountain at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. This was created by constructing a lake in the Peaks seen behind the house, generating enough water pressure for the fountain to reach nearly 300 feet on demand.

Emperor Fountain (1844) with the South Face of Chatsworth House, the Derbshire home of the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire
The valley in which the Meta Sudans is (or was) located was the original thoroughfare of Rome, the via sacra. The various communities which made up early Rome used that road for processions, notably for funerals; Polybius comments on how important those were. By the time the Meta Sudans was built, processions along the via sacra would have passed underneath the Arch of Titus and then turned left past the Colossus (which the Chronographer notes as ’The colossal statue, 102 feet high. On its head are 7 rays each 22 feet long’.  This was a crowded, low-lying poor area area, which in AD354 had 2,757 insulae and only 88 houses. The water pressure had to process 75 bath houses, 78 cisterns and the Baths of Daphne; the latter may be associated with the statue of Apollo (Apollinem sandaliarum) in that district; Daphne was a water nymph pursued by Apollo, and is one of the first myths Ovid recites in his Metamorphoses.

Computer Reconstruction of the Meta Sudans (see the coin of Titus)
Sadly, the Meta Sudans was demolished at the orders of Mussolini in 1936; by then, as can be seen in these illustrations, it had collapsed into a small stump. There is no sign then of cultural protests like those against ISIS for attacking Palmyra today.





Monday, 27 February 2017

Who Killed Naucratius and Chrysapius?

Two young men were found drowned. Such events took place in antiquity at least as often as such tragedies happen today. But there may be more to it all.

Naucratius was one of the sons of a remarkable family. If he had a Roman style name, we don’t know of it. The family lived on a large landed estate just outside Neocaesarea in Pontus, a province in what’s now northern Turkey. They were well established by the fourth century AD and had slaves.

The story of Naucratius and Chrysapius is told by his elder brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and takes up two chapters in his Life of Macrina, a family hagiography, since Macrina was sister to both men.
Icon of St Macrina; from Kiev, 11th century


Neocaesarea, originally known as Cabira (and in Turkish today as Niksar, derived from its Roman name), stood at the junction of the rivers Iris and Lycus. It was the capital of Pontus and Mithridates the Great lived there, and while came from nearby. Its references to Caesar seems to follow its Greek name Sebaste, city of the prince.

The city had a tiny Christian community in the third century, yet it was given a bishop for its seventeen communicants. This was Gregorius Thaumaturgus, Gregory the Miracle Worker (213-270), who was so famous locally that large numbers of local boys were given that name. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a book about him too. Christian practice in this area seems to be focused on a small band of people, some family members and some closely associated with each others.

Thaumaturgus was bishop of the area in the middle of the third century, when the Goths invaded from across the Black Sea; local people who had converted to Christianity were abducted by the Goths (possibly with the cooperation of local ‘pagans’ glad to see the back of them); a century later, one of them was Wulfilla, apostle to the Goths, the man who invented the Gothic alphabet and translated most of the Bible into Gothic; the slaves had over the years become Goths and yet retained Christianity and a working knowledge of Latin and Greek for a century.

It is possible that Thaumaturgus was related to the family of Naucratius. The place was not particularly large and nobles and major landowners tended to marry each other. The wonder worker only became a bishop at age forty, having been a lawyer before that. His miracles therefore took place between c.253 and his death in 270, only seventeen years, so they must have made a big impression.

Another connection with Naucratius may have related to the latter’s name. Thaumaturgus had travelled to the near east in his youth on the staff of a Roman governor. The young man’s name relates to the major port city of Naucratis in Egypt. There does remain however a possibility that the name was given to him post mortem, as it means ‘sea victory’, perhaps symbolising how he somehow conquered death by martyrdom.

That the family lived on their landed estate rather than in the city may have to do with the destruction of Neocaesarea in an earthquake in AD344, which is recorded in Jerome’s Chronicle. This was part of a massive series of earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean in the 340s, destroying several eastern cities in 341, Durres in Albania in 346 (whose aftershocks, Jerome says, were felt in Rome), as well as Nicomedia and others in 358 and Nicea itself in 368. The disruption to civic life this created may be what led to serious famines in places like Phrygia in 370.

The family of St Basil. Naucratius third from left, front row. All the other brothers were bishops (and have crucifixes on their robes)
So when we hear of large numbers of people moving to the family estate, these may have been people in Neocaesarea and elsewhere putting themselves under the protection of a powerful patronage dynasty. Gregory again, concerning his youngest brother, Peter: ‘Once when a severe famine had occurred and crowds from all quarters were frequenting the retreat where they lived, drawn by the fame of their benevolence, Peter's kindness supplied such an abundance of food that the desert seemed a city by reason of the number of visitors.’ (Life of Macrina, translated 1916).

The story of the death of Naucratius is sufficiently short to quote verbatim.

The Tragic Death of Naucratius
Then there fell on the mother a grievous and tragic affliction, contrived, I think, by the Adversary, which brought trouble and mourning upon all the family. For he was snatched suddenly away from life. No previous sickness had prepared them for the blow, nor did any of the usual and well-known mischances bring death upon the young man. Having started out on one of the expeditions, by which he provided necessaries for the old men under his care, he was brought back home dead, together with Chrysapius who shared his life. His mother was far away, three days distant from the scene of the tragedy. Some one came to her telling the bad news. Perfect though she was in every department of virtue, yet nature dominated her as it does others. For she collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble athlete hit by an unexpected blow.

Naucratius had been living with another young man ‘Chrysapius who shared his life’. When they both died from drowning, Naucratius’ mother Emmelia ‘collapsed, and in a moment lost both breath and speech, since her reason failed her under the disaster, and she was thrown to the ground by the assault of the evil tidings, like some noble athlete hit by an unexpected blow’. This sounds very much like an ancient attempt to describe a stroke. She died some time later, on 30 May 375.

If we go back to the previous chapter, we get some context:

The Story of Naucratius
The second of the four brothers, Naucratius by name, who came next after the great Basil, excelled the rest in natural endowments and physical beauty, in strength, speed and ability to turn his hand to anything. When he had reached his twenty-first year, and had given such demonstration of his studies by speaking in public, that the whole audience in the theatre was thrilled, he was led by a divine providence to despise all that was already in his grasp, and drawn by an irresistible impulse went off to a life of solitude and poverty. He took nothing with him but himself, save that one of the servants named Chrysapius followed him, because of the affection he had towards his master and the intention he had formed to lead the same life. So he lived by himself, having found a solitary spot on the banks of the Iris, a river flowing through the midst of Pontus. It rises actually in Armenia, passes through our parts, and discharges its stream into the Black Sea. By it the young man found a place with a luxuriant growth of trees and a hill nestling under the mass of the overhanging mountain. There he lived far removed from the noises of the city and the distractions that surround the lives both of the soldier and the pleader in the law courts. Having thus freed himself from the din of cares that impedes man's higher life, with his own hands he looked after some old people who were living in poverty and feebleness, considering it appropriate to his mode of life to make such a work his care. So the generous youth would go on fishing expeditions, and since he was expert in every form of sport, he provided food to his grateful clients by this means. And at the same time by such exercises he was taming his own manhood. Besides this, he also gladly obeyed his mother's wishes whenever she issued a command. And so in these two ways he guided his life, subduing his youthful nature by toils and caring assiduously for his mother, and thus keeping the divine commands he was travelling home to God.

In this manner he completed the fifth year of his life as a philosopher, by which he made his mother happy, both by the way in which he adorned his own life by continence, and by the devotion of all his powers to do the will of her that bore him.

His mother, Emmelia, would not be the first not to understand that her son was gay. After all, the construction of someone who is exclusively heterosexual or homosexual is a modern one, and to the Romans in the pre-Christian era, the only obligation was to parent sufficient children to pass on the family name and wealth; what either sex did beyond that achievement was considered their own business.

Chrysapius is described in the 1916 translation as a servant, but people didn’t have servants then, and the life of a waged servant, who could be dismissed, was hardly desirable either. Put simply, Chrysapius was a slave. He went with Naucratius no doubt with the permission of an overseer, who would have consulted the head of the family resident on the landed estate, which was Macrina, the eldest of the siblings; her father had died shortly after the birth of Peter, we are told, and legally the mother was not a member of the family, so it would have been Macrina who decided.

There are hints at their relationship. Chrysapius went with Naucratius because of ‘the affection he had towards his master and the intention he had formed to lead the same life’. This seems to me to be an indicator of a loving homosexual relationship, in what seems a rural idyll almost like Thoreau’s Walden. We are told the two men lived three days travel from the family estate, which would have been too far for the family to drop in, as every young person living away from the family for the first time would crave. It’s hard now to understand what the role of a free born citizen might be with regards to a slave, hetero of homosexually. Since a slave was not legally a person, would a citizen at that time be capable of being termed ‘chaste’

His name may actually have been Chrysaphius not Chrysapius. There was a famous eunuch minister at the court of Theodosius II in Constantinople called Chrysaphius.

It may seem odd that Naucratius was not ordained, since three brothers were, and the eldest sister, Macrina, was a nun (we are told that Emmelia gave her daughter a secret name, Thecla, at birth; Thecla was a female apostle associated with St Paul).

As he was not a priest, the only way he could have been a saint in those days was as a martyr. Who might have killed him? Well, in that same year, AD374 there were condemnations from Gregory of Nyssa (the brother of Naucratius) and by his kinsman, Gregory of Naziansus, against a cult known as the Hypsistarians, worshippers of Hypsistos, the ‘most high god’. He seems to be derived from the Cappadocian god Sabazios, who may be connected to Sabaoath, one of the sacred names of the Hebrew god. So the Cappadocian Christian leaders of a rich powerful clan in the area were drawn into a dispute with followers of a religion which fused local beliefs with elements of Judaism, expressed through Greek terminology.

Altar to Hypsistos, first century AD
I can quite see that a religion condemned by local Christian zealots might strike out at the most vulnerable member of that group. Since Naucratius’ father had been born a ‘pagan’, might he too have been a follower of Hypsistos? If so, it could be revenge on Christian antagonism. What we can’t know is cause versus effect. Did the works condemning Hypsistos provoke the murder of Naucratius and Chrysapius (Chrysaphius), or were they to condemn the Hypsistarians, following the murder of the beloved son and his lover?

Temple Statue of Zeus Hypsistos, decapitated, perhaps by Christians
We may never know, but the deaths caused Emmelia to have a stroke, and Macrina died not long after, weakening her body with starvation. Was that her penance? The surviving members of the family followed St Jerome to Bethlehem soon after.


For sure, Naucratius and his lover were murdered: martyrdom implies murder. Whether he was murdered as a member of a family cult, vulnerable because of his chosen exile, or for his sexuality by rival Christians or by Hypsistarians, will never be proven.